We can't get the guy we really want, the Coyotes told incumbent unrestricted free-agent goaltender Sean Burke last summer, so we guess you'll have to do. And, by the way, take a $1 million pay cut, or the deal's off.
That was the unlikely prelude to what has been the best season of Burke's 13-year NHL career, a turn of events he attributes to several factors. There's the goalie coach, Benoit Allaire, with whom he bonded instantly. There's the accumulated wisdom of all those years in the league. "I'm working smarter," says the 34-year-old Burke, "and not worrying about things beyond my control." Finally, there's the yoga. Last spring he took a class at a health club. "Me and 20 middle-aged women," he says. Next thing you know, he's spending at least an hour every day getting centered and performing such stretches as the Cobra, the Tree Pose and the Downward Dog—which doubled, for much of the last few years, as a description of where Burke was headed.
Burke finished last season with the Coyotes—his fourth team since 1997—and felt good about the way he had played. Still, the summer passed without a contract offer from Phoenix or any of the league's other 29 clubs. With nothing else to do, Burke, who spends the off-season at his summer home in Sylvan Lake, Alberta, bought a plane ticket and spent an awkward week in Arizona in August, joining some Coyotes in informal workouts at the team's training facility. When a session ended, the Phoenix players would file into the dressing room. Burke, not officially a member of the Coyotes, changed in a little room in a different part of the building. "It was uncomfortable," he says. "It felt like I was begging."
Lord knows the NHL had taught him humility. After breaking in spectacularly with the Devils in March 1988—he won 10 of his first 11 starts and all but single-handedly delivered New Jersey to the first playoff berth in franchise history—his career cooled. After a rancorous contract dispute with the Devils in '91, Burke was traded to the Hartford Whalers and spent four seasons performing nightly heroics for that woebegone club. It was his fate, after escaping the Insurance City, to become one of the league's most popular insurance policies. General managers didn't think of him as the franchise player he'd been early in his career but as a dependable rent-a-goalie. He donned the sweaters of the Hurricanes (as the Whalers were renamed when the franchise moved to Raleigh four years ago), the Canucks, the Flyers and the Panthers before Phoenix traded for him in November 1999.
Burke's solid play last season (2.57 goals-against average) put the Coyotes into the playoffs, but they were dispatched by the Avalanche in five games. Phoenix showed little interest in re-signing Burke, and as the summer wore on, he suspected that his NHL days might be over. He and his wife, Leslie, were O.K. with that. "If things didn't work out, we were prepared to move on," he says. "Everything else in my life was pretty good, so I wasn't going to let the hockey bring me down."
He was bailed out by a fellow goaltender. The Coyotes' Nikolai Khabibulin, who missed the 1999-2000 season because he couldn't come to terms on a contract, appeared ready to sit out a second straight year. On Sept. 9, the day after training camp began, Phoenix G.M. Bobby Smith offered Burke a one-year deal for $1.3 million, slightly less than the league average. Take it or leave it.
Burke took it, and he has taken the league by storm. Through Sunday he was third in the NHL in save percentage (.922) despite playing behind a team that yields more scoring chances than the XFL cheerleaders. "He's stolen games for us," says wing Shane Doan. "He's gotten us points we don't even remotely deserve." Burke has masked more flaws than Maybelline while leading Phoenix to the eighth-best record in the West (33-26-16-3). He stopped 38 shots to shut out the Oilers on Feb. 9; 39 in blanking the Rangers on Nov. 12; and 45 in whitewashing the Avalanche on Oct. 30.
How has he gone from hockey hobo to NHL All-Star and Vezina Trophy candidate? He traces his improvement to the moment he met the mild-mannered, bespectacled Allaire. Allaire boosted Burke's confidence by telling Burke at the get-go that he had long regarded him as one of the top 10 talents in the league. He also told Burke that his technique needed work, reminding him to always be square to the shooter and asking him to play a touch deeper in the crease than he had been. Anything else? "Yes," Allaire says, "but I want to keep it a secret."
Whatever it is, it's working. "Sean has been incredible," said Wayne Gretzky on Feb. 16, the day after he became the Coyotes' minority owner and managing partner. The first conundrum that faced Gretzky and Cliff Fletcher, the general manager he brought in to replace Smith, was whether to entrust their goaltending future to Burke or lay out enough cash to bring back the 28-year-old Khabibulin. The Coyotes decided that Burke was their man. On Feb. 26, Phoenix signed him to a three-year, $9 million extension. A week later, Khabibulin was dealt to the Lightning for three young players and a second-round draft pick.
Another reason Phoenix stuck with Burke is that he's as good in the dressing room as he is between the pipes. With the Coyotes orchestrating a youth movement, it's important to have "the right people around to influence" the kids, says Gretzky. Backup goaltender Robert Esche, 23, and netminder-of-the-future Patrick DesRochers, 21, regard Burke as a father figure. After DesRochers was sent to the minors earlier this season, Burke phoned him, telling him to work hard and to keep his chin up. Esche says of Burke, "He'll stand up to anyone—that's what I like about him. He's not afraid to tell your best player where to go."